Friday, March 5, 2010

Learning the Hard Way: Self Esteem & Self Confidence Classes for Teens

For the past two weeks, I taught a course as an artist-in-residence at a private, school for privileged teen girls. The course was entitled, "Super Hero Training for Girls,"  and I created it to help teens and pre-teens boost their self-esteem, build their self-confidence and to ultimately help them counter some of the biggest challenges facing pre-teens and teens today including: bullying, anger, eating disorders, violence, substance abuse, anger, delinquency, and suicide.

I've taught the course to inner city impoverished teens and pre-teens with a great deal of success. The curriculum works really well with boys, girls, and with classes with boys and girls. I think a lot of that success stems from me being a dependent, positive male role-model to kids in situations where positive, male role models are far and few between.

I was curious how things would turn out in a situation where the home conditions for these students were more ideal - homes with both a mom and dad, college educated parents with good jobs, and homes in a stable economic bracket.

In the class, I give students a lot of room to express themselves in a multitude of creative ways including: creative writing, heart-to-heart discussions, confidence building theatre games, and lots of hands-on exercises meant to challenge participants to think differently about how they interact with the world and their family. It's worked in the past because I treat the students like adults, give them a lot of freedom to be responsible for their own behaviors and establish a safe, judgment-free environment.

What did we do in the class?
One homework assignment including going home and telling everyone in your family that you loved them and noting the reaction in yourself and each of your family members. Did the family member deflect it, take it in, ignore it, or make assumptions? 

Another assignment included standing in front of a partner, looking them in the eyes and complimenting them. Both partners were required to note how they felt in the moment, including body language and any feelings that came up.Part two of the assignment included judging your partner.

Another included performing a Random Acts of Kindness. I even had them visit Patience Salgado's Kindness Girl Blog (@kindessgirl) to get ideas. They were required to give to someone anonymously. I told them things like this went into their karmic bank account and directly boosted self-esteem.

We also covered a section on how gratitude helps to boost self-esteem as well and I invited two guest speakers to come in and talk about the subject: Book editor, Valley Haggard and ex-super model Kim Alley. I even had them visit Nancy "Fancy Pants" Illman's blog to see how someone else has found a way to fit gratitude into their own life.

The examples above, to me, make up the foundation of self-esteem - how we deal with love, how we deal with judgments (both positive and negative) and how selflessly we give to others. These are akin to the fundamental drills a coach makes an athlete practice over and over again whether they are just beginning or they are an experienced, highly-paid professional athlete. In basketball, this would be like practicing your free-throw until you could do it in your sleep and then practicing it some more.

I explained to the girls that we often have lofty, confusing, and abstract ideas about how to make the world a better place that aren't rooted in practical, methods of implementation. For instance, it's more acceptable in our culture to go into the post office and tell the clerk off by saying, "You sorry, SOB, I can't believe you're so slow. I hate you," than it is to go in and say, "I really love you." 

Often we want soldiers to drop their weapons, but could we except them to be able to look one another in the eyes after doing so and honestly give and receive a compliment and say I love you? Not likely! 

We hear people all the time say that we'd like to have a world filled without wars, gang violence, fights, and a society filled with anger, but what then? Isn't everyone escaping through food and video games and drugs because the "what then" scares them? No one seems to be equipped with the skills to interact in a healthy way when we drop our defenses and no one seems to be interested in providing the skills to do so.

Over and over again, even in a safe environment, by repeating the compliment exercises, I couldn't get these girls to give and receive a compliment to one another and feel comfortable about it. When they went home and gave family members compliments, the compliments were either:

a) Deflected  - "I think you look great!" "Oh, I think you look great too!"

b) Seen as Ingenuous - "I think you look great!" "What do you want? I know you're only being nice to me for a reason."

c) Ignored - "You're the best." silence or cricket, cricket

The concepts were simple and so were the exercises, but I know that what I put these girls through would have made most adults cringe. How well do you accept a compliment? Do you know what to say when you are judged by someone else? If I asked you to give a compliment every hour for an entire day and an extra compliment every time you heard someone sneeze, could you? Has anyone ever asked you to write down your top 25 goals and dreams?

Despite their awkward teen ways I didn't expect them to really change in 2 weeks. Although the over-all average self-esteem for the class increased by 15 points based on a questionnaire I gave the girls before and after, nothing really prepared me for what I read on the evaluations that I had them fill out on the last day of class. 

The majority of girls felt the class was a waste. They felt the exercises were fake. They said the class was disorganized, the exercises were irrelevant, and the environment was creepy. 

When I put status updates last week on my Twitter and Facebook profiles, I got a lot of positive feedback for teaching the course. But, I'm just guessing though, that if most adults had the opportunity to participate in a class like this, they'd find themselves rowing the same boat as these girls.

The quandary question then, is this: Is there a problem with our vision in our world or is there a problem with the implementation of our vision?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

For more info about "The Neon Man and Me" and other storytelling projects by me - Slash Coleman - please visit


  1. I guess they'd rather have bling than esteem. Too bad. Doesn't surprise, though. Privilege has it's mystique that must be adhered to by the sub-culture. Don't sweat it, Flash. You make a difference where it really counts.

    JD Watt

  2. Slash-I have a rather lengthy comment to make about this topic. I've been interested to hear of your Minimester experience. Would you call me soon? I have time next week, as the kids are out of town until the end of Spring Break. I will work around your schedule...I will DM you my cell again, if you have misplaced it. You will want to hear what I have to say... and further, I have something tangible to add on the implementation end for you, as well. I've been planning on calling you all week... but wanted to wait until the session ended. Thanks-Margaret

  3. Thanks for your comment John. I've been told by others I may have given them a tool they may not know how to use until they mature more. I mean when my Dad gave me my first tool box when I was eight, I was like "What the heck is this?" Then when I turned 20, I was like. "Good old Dad. You were really thinking ahead weren't you."

  4. The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. You have planted some beautiful seeds, Slash. Just you wait and see.

  5. Teenagers do not often have the depth, experience or maturity to recognize a life changing experience or life lesson until much later. When I was a teen I did not believe that almost anything I learned in art school would serve me in "real" life and I have been proven wrong. I could not understand that having a highly developed left and right brain would serve me so well.

  6. Slash - Apparently they felt like they had to brand your class "uncool" because of their discomfort with the ENTIRE topic.
    So sad.
    I think really you did have an effect, but that they just couldn't admit it.
    I would LOVE to take your class. And I would LOVE for my daughter to take it too. The problem is that those girls have been trained by their (sub)culture to value other things. When they get a little older they may or may not realized the error of their ways.
    Keep at it -- You are AWESOME!!!

  7. I've raised several teenagers and did youth work for 15 years. You toss it to them. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes they come back years later and pick it up. It's the nature of youth. We've all been there.Just keep tossing it to them, that's the key.
    Or, as a wise man once said. There are some who dig, some who plant, and some who water. Some see the fruit of their work, some do not. But you keep working.

  8. thanks so much-I loved the class and think the girls were loving it too. it was really's amazing work to help kids..the next generation! I wish I had had this in my classroom growing up!

  9. honestly, right away, if i were a teenager and had to take a class entitled 'superhero training for GIRLS' i would blow it off. you labeled them as younger than they are, right away....treating them like children, you titled it that way.
    and...i would think, 'what would a grown man know about superhero training for girls?'...that truly is creepy, if you think about it.

    you have said that this works well in mixed situations (b/g). but i know as a teenaged female, that i would feel diminished by the title alone. it isn't giving them the respect they need as growing (hopefully) independent females. most of them have developed breasts by this point, i'm sure...rethink that title. my two cents.

  10. Good Point Shana - I think I will change the title to Super Hero Training for Teens & Pre-teens rather than separate it out by gender.

  11. The gist of what I'm getting then from @Jonah, @Kim @ Donna, @Ellen is that there is a problem of implementation and the vision of how to implement the change.

    How great would it be to have a mandatory self-esteem class in high-school along with a class on how to do your taxes and how to fix your car? A pretty radical idea seeing that we will spend the rest of our lives with these 3 things.

    As a culture, I don't yet feel we have the tools to know how to make the transition to this vision - YET. At the risk of sounding metaphysical, for what it's worth, that's why I'm excited about 2012. There just has to be a transition vision waiting around the corner for our culture and maybe it'll be passed to us at that time.

  12. As a student at the school mentioned, I am deeply disappointed in the people in this class, yet I am not surprised. I try to surround myself with people who can understand the kinds of concepts you were trying to promote because self esteem and knowing who you are are far more important to me than whatever shallow activities bemuse the girls in that class. It irritates me to hear that they said it was creepy, but I think it was a very important thing for you to teach them. Maybe they'll use the tools they learned in that class later in life. I certainly hope so. And I really hope that this does not deter you you from working with other students at my school.

  13. Slash..I love your commitment to our future, and I'm so sorry that about some of the girls comments about your workshop. Having been embedded @ SC for a year, I found it to be THE most complicated learning/teaching environment I had ever been in. My experience was that there was an exceptional amount of compliance, but infused with even more resentment. So my thoughts...I agree w/ Shana about the title, except I was less confused by "girls" than by "Superhero". A superhero in what context...through what medium are you exploring superhero: spiritual, creative, physical, cognitive?
    I've sat w/ that "vision vs. implementation of vision" of question since I left SC. From my perspective, it's implementation. You have to create so much aesthetic distance for those girls...far more than you do w/ inner-city students. Anyway..I could wax on, but in the end, please know you do amazing work in the world!! SC was a great experience because I met you!

  14. Hi Slash --
    I am writing you an email right now. I will send it in a few minutes. :)

  15. Oh, you brave man, alone in a room of pre/current teen girls!

    From my experience w/ girls from St. Cat's to Rt. 1 trailer parks, I'm not surprised at their harsh criticism. It sounds as though they came in pretty hopeful that it would make a good change in their lives & you asked them to take some big risks emotionally, & when it didn't happen overnight, it was ALL YOUR FAULT!

    Re the compliment: Maybe next time, ask them to be specific. "You look great" doesn't really offer any information on how to do it again. Add a "...because..." section, that blue sweater compliments your eyes/skin, your outfit is really working for you, etc. And the response should be, at the most, "Really? Thanks." Giving a good compliment is almost as much work as taking one gracefully.

    Re the receiver's (usually parents') suspicious response: We all have ulterior motives and many family dynamics are built around a kid wheedling a parent for something by employing sweetness. (See being good right around Christmas so Santa will be generous.) Superheroes don't do their good deeds for the appreciation, or expectations that it will make an immediate change, but because it needs to be done.

    Re the ignored gesture: Such a huge risk to say something positive to anyone. Kindness usually takes time to burn through the haze of the day/one's life. There may be a response before long or, maybe not. If it's a new experience within the relationship, people may not know how to react and are surprised. Surprise always slows response time.

    Superheroing is lonely work. That's why they're always standing on top of buildings, capes blowing in the breeze, all alone, even if they have sidekicks. They don't hero for the thanks or recognition or because they expect everything to be fixed right away. Look at how long Superman/Batman have been defending Gotham. That's why there are superhero teams.

    Next class, pick up on the "loner/lonely" aspect of being a hero. To abandon expectation of the right response. That's something that will resonate w/ teens. Being a hero as opposed to an annoying teen in spite proof of the responses they really want makes equal amounts of sense.

  16. Thanks @Anonymous & @Dean for checking in. It's good to get your perspective on things since you've both been there in the trenches. I suppose as with all things, classes need to be a work in progress.

    @Lelia Believe it or not - I've never really considered the Superhero aspect of the class, only the hero part. I suppose, there is a key in my dissection there.

    Thanks to all who have weighed in and offered their feedback and support. It's a learning experience for me as well.

    As a doctor, you get to say you are practicing, which allows you to be "practicing" or trying things out your whole life, but as a teacher we aren't allowed to say we are "practicing." Kind of weird semantics.

  17. I really like Donna's quote, "The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago". Lots of good feedback. I've been doing some similar work with 6th graders at Moody Middle School and experienced similar frustrations......but gotta imagine highschool girls are even more challenging as you were connecting with them at the most self conscious stage of life there is. So, of course there going to call it creepy as it infringes upon the images they are working to develop, but didn't you say their self-esteem points when up 15 points? Sounds like a success to me.

    Thanks for the honesty with which you shared your experience.

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